Image : Wikimedia Commons
Hungary, like many others in Europe, was not spared by the mayhem that the 20th century brought along, and the consequences thereof continue to affect it. Its society, public opinion, and, to a large extent, its relations with its neighbouring states, are all intrinsically marked by the wars, the territorial losses, and the spheres of influence it went through in the last hundred years or so. These continue to affect the way the Hungarian public, and policymakers, view their relations with neighbouring states.
Recently, Hungary has been in the spotlight due to multiple diplomatic incidents. In May of last year, on air on the national radio station “Kossuth Rádió”, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, stated that “We [Hungary] would also have an access to the sea, if it hadn’t been taken away from us.”, prompting a public outcry in neighbouring Croatia, and the summoning of Hungary’s ambassador in Zagreb by the Croatian foreign ministry. On the 20th of November, Orbán sparked anger notably in Romania and Ukraine, by wearing a scarf that showed a map of ”Greater Hungary”, which includes parts of the modern-day state’s territory. In August of last year, Orbán gave a shocking speech, in which he stated the following: “We are not a mixed-race society, and we would not like to become one”, in one of his biggest rallies held yearly. What may be surprising, aside from the wording of the speech, is the location for this major event: it is held yearly (although COVID-19 has caused a 2-year break) in the small town of Băile Tușnad, located in the center-east of Romania, a location that may seem unlikely for such a rally at first sight.
Orbán’s statement on the Croatian coast, the map depicted on his scarf, and the odd location for his rally, are to be attributed to the legacy of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, which dealt with the “Hungary” part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. Through this Treaty, the Kingdom of Hungary, as it existed in the Habsburg period, lost about 2/3 of its territory and population, and left around 3.4 million ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary’s borders, who became citizens of neighbouring states. To this day, ethnic-Hungarian communities can be found in all of Hungary’s neighbouring states.
A historically changing perspective
Ever since, the situation of Hungarians across the border became a pressing preoccupation, with an evolving official and societal approach. During the interwar period, the humiliation, grief, and bitterness that the situation brought about led to the immediate rise of revisionist and irredentist ideas within Hungary, and generated mistrust from its neighbours during the interwar period. In the wake of WW2, Hungary regained some of its lost territories with the help of allies in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, a situation which did not last, as the end of the war meant a return to post-Trianon borders.
Furthermore, the country now found itself under the occupation of Soviet troops, a global superpower that was on its immediate doorstep after territorial changes faced by Poland, and the handover of territories from Hungary to the USSR, which incorporated these into the Ukrainian SSR. During this period, and for much of the period of Soviet occupation, the subject of Hungarian minorities abroad was largely pushed to the sidelines, and any official expression on the matter became punishable.
“The 90’s”, lots and lots of change
As the Soviet Union started falling apart, and its grip on satellite states loosened notably with Gorbachov’s policy of Perestroika, Hungary, along with several others, dropped the Soviet-imposed system of government, beginning a new chapter in its history. It now faced a troublesome, volatile situation in its immediate vicinity.
The eventual break-out of the brutal Yugoslav wars to the south that eventually lead to the independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, along with Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, meant that it eventually had to start fresh diplomatic relations with several new nations. Furthermore, relations with Austria and Romania began a new chapter, one which did not include Soviet oversight on these relations.
“In my heart, I want to be 15 million Hungarians’ Prime Minister”
Such were the words of József Antall in 1990, upon his election as the first democratically elected prime minister of post-communist Hungary, making a clear reference to ethnic Hungarian communities living abroad, as the population of Hungary at the time was about 10 million. For the first time in half a century, the taboo cof Trianon and the Hungarians abroad was broken, and the issue could once again be freely discussed. In the Hungarian public sphere, the subject made a remarkable comeback in all forms. Maps depicting the outline of Greater Hungary made a return, in the form of stickers next to license plates on the back of cars, as decorations in shops and homes, and the idea of a Hungarian nation that includes people over the borders of the Hungarian state became a popular one once again.
These factors lead to the emergence of a new political doctrine in Hungary, known as “Nemzetpolitika” in Hungarian, roughly translatable to “Nation Policy”. It includes a series of internal and external policies, relating notably to the protection of the Hungarian minorities outside of Hungary on the international stage, rights to Hungarian citizenship for these communities, and other measures to strengthen ties between the Republic of Hungary and these communities.
In parallel to these developments in Hungary, several political parties and organisations emerged in other states advocating for the protection of the Hungarian minorities’ rights, with some even reaching positions in government coalitions, such as the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ).
These lead to strain in Hungary’s relations with neighbouring states since the beginning. In 1993, shortly after Slovakia’s independence, Hungary refused to sign a treaty on its common border with the latter, due to what it perceived as unmet guarantees relating to the protection of the rights of minorities within Slovakia, a treaty that would only be signed in 1995, as the need for collaboration in light of the targeted accession to the EU prevailed. With regards to Romania too, relations soured almost immediately, as ethnic tensions grew, which eventually lead to ethnic clashes notably in the city of Târgu Mures in 1990.
In 2010, Viktor Orbán and his conservative FIDESZ party were elected to lead the Hungarian government, a situation that has remained unchanged to this day. Among other things, the issues pertaining to the rights of minorities abroad have been at the top of their election campaigns in each election since then. In 2011, the law on the acquisition of Hungarian citizenship was amended to allow people of Hungarian descent to access it without residing in Hungary, a move that caused uproar in several neighbouring countries. In Slovakia and Ukraine, where dual citizenship was unlawful (laws regarding the matter have since been relaxed in Slovakia), authorities threatened to strip their respective citizenship from people who were found to acquire Hungary’s.
With the acquisition of Hungarian citizenship by so many people, these topics gained even more importance than ever before, as the naturalisation of so many residents of neighbouring states now meant that besides the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties, these communities had an institutional link to the Hungarian state. In 2014, Hungarians abroad gained the right to vote in Hungarian elections for the first time, without the requirement to have a registered address in Hungary. Ever since, these Hungarian communities in neighbouring states have been strongly supporting the ruling FIDESZ party by a wide margin, and together with the ethnic parties representing minorities in their respective states, strongly endorsed by Orbán, have been unchallenged political forces in these areas.
In light of this power shift, the doctrine of “Nation Policy” changed considerably: while it used to be a set of policies aimed mainly at the diplomatic stage, it became increasingly a tool of internal policy aimed at Hungarian citizens living abroad, including investment in Hungarian schools in Hungarian speaking areas of neighbouring countries, in sports teams and infrastructure, in transport infrastructure in the form of air, rail and road links between Hungary and these areas, and the list goes on.
This has, understandably, lead to friction between Hungary and its neighbours, who viewed increased Hungarian influence on their territory suspiciously, and in a lot of cases, have called out the Orbán government as being “irredentist”. There have also been accusations of direct Hungarian involvement in other countries’ elections, as was the case in 2019, when Ukraine accused Hungary of interfering in its parliamentary elections in the Western Zakarpattia Region, which had at the time had an ethnic Hungarian population of 150.000, by means of financing campaign material favouring the local Hungarian candidates, a move that goes against Ukrainian law.
EU and Schengen accession for neighbouring states
Thanks to the EU and the Schengen area, Hungary’s borders with Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Slovakia are today open, and people are able to freely travel, live and work in any country they wish. The EU, along with the Schengen agreement, is perceived to a large extent as a means for healing the past historic wounds and difficulties with neighbouring states: while minorities continue to live in neighbouring states, these areas are now easily accessible from Hungary. Borders, while very much still present, are no longer an obstacle, and families are no longer separated.
This logic has driven Hungary’s support for the further European integration of its neighbours, most notably Romania’s accession to the Schengen area, the recent refusal of which Péter Szijjártó, Foreign Minister of Hungary, called “one of the most shameful decisions of the year”. Such an attitude can also be seen in Hungary’s support of Serbian accession, with, most recently in January 2023, the Hungarian government urging the EU to “accelerate Serbia’s negotiations for EU accession”.
With regard to Ukraine, the situation has been somewhat more nuanced. While Ukraine certainly fulfils the logic outlined above as it has a sizeable Hungarian minority, relations have been complicated due to Hungary’s relations with Russia, especially with relations to Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy. This factor has led Ukraine to perceive Hungary as being somewhat “too soft” on Putin and Russia, something which has led to the further deterioration of relations since February 2022.
According to several scholars, the ethnic tensions between Ukrainians and Russians in the country also place the Hungarian minority in a negative light, as policies in Ukraine aimed at reducing the Russian language’s usage end up restricting the use of Hungarian too, resulting in anger from lawmakers in Hungary, to whom the issue of the promotion of minority languages is a crucial one. When the previously mentioned 2017 language law was adopted in Ukraine, the Hungarian foreign ministry stated that it would block any attempt from Ukraine for further EU and NATO integration. How this will affect Ukraine’s current bid for EU membership is yet to be seen.
https://telex.hu/belfold/2022/07/23/orban-mi-nem-vagyunk-kevert-fajuak (source in Hungarian)
Zoltán Kántor, “Nemzetpolitika és állampolgárság” (Nation-policy and citizenship).
Ignác Romsics, “Magyarország története a 20. században” (the History of Hungary in the 20th century).